Revolution Lullabye

November 16, 2010

Hjortshoj, The Marginality of the Left-Hand Castes

Hjortshoj, Keith. “The Marginality of the Left-Hand Castes (A Parable for Writing Teachers).” College Composition and Communication 46.4 (December 1995): 491-505. Print.

Hjortshoj, the director of the stand-alone Cornell Writing Program, uses an allegory of the left-hand castes in Indian society, the artisans and smiths whose services were necessary but who were shunned by the others, to explain how compositionists could define what they have in common with each other across institutional and hierarchal lines. He notes that teaching writing is seen as messy, dirty work (not unlike custodial work) because it is: it is unpredictable, it is often difficult, and it happens invisibly the margins. Many academics, he contends, do not want to pull open the veil and reveal to others the difficulties they face as writers, the same problems that students struggle with. He argues that writing teachers and compositionists should strive to form programs or move to programs (as opposed to traditional departments) that value the kind of work that they do.

Notes and Quotes

“At research universities, especially, marginalized teachers (including teaching assistants) are most directly engaged with the interactive, exploratory, “hands-on,” transformative learning processes that university brochures advertise as the foundations of the undergraduate experience. By contrast, official ranking systems in these institutions, from undergraduate grading schemes to tenure reviews, privilege what is already known and already written, along with theory over practice, products over processes, individual achievements over col-laborative endeavors: being over becoming.” (503)

“paradoxal, unstable interdependence” (497).

written communication is fundamental to all academic discourse.

“What we teach, therefore, is fundamentally powerful and important, even if we are not. Within our institutions, writing teachers and their courses might be subordinated to all other kinds of instruction, but written language is not subordinate to anything.” (499)

“Like fire, language is essential, transformative, and potentially destructive. Most of the people I know, especially in academic institutions, are to some extent afraid of writing-daunted by the challenge of controlling language for their own purposes, and afraid that they might be controlled by language for the purposes of others. Writing teachers do not really control language. But the idea that we can or should control language makes us objects of fear or discomfort by association. Keeping us in our place-in a marginal, parenthetical relation to the rest of academic life-is a way of keeping the potentially disruptive power of language contained and disguised, though not altogether denied.” (501).

 He points out that the discoruse surrouding composition – that teachers of writing value their work but believe they are marginalized at the institution – comes into conflict with the fact that some compositionists are not in marginalized positions (deans, chairs, directors) and that a university-wide writing program is almost universally seen as a necessary and valuable enterprise in all US colleges and universities.

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